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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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Complications of Heartburn and GERD

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After finishing a big meal, you feel it -- that scorched feeling in your chest. But you can keep heartburn in check with the right treatment, like a medicine or lifestyle change.  

If you brush off the symptoms, though, this common condition and its more serious form, GERD, can lead to other health issues. That’s because heartburn happens when your stomach juices wash back up. Over time, stomach acid may damage your esophagus, teeth, and more.

Recommended Related to Heartburn/GERD

Understanding the Basics of GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be thought of as chronic symptoms of heartburn. The term refers to the frequent backing up (reflux) of stomach contents (food, acid, and/or bile) into the esophagus -- the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. GERD also refers to the array of medical complications, some serious, that can arise from this reflux. Though it causes discomfort, occasional heartburn is not harmful. About 20% of adults in the U.S. experience GERD symptoms such as heartburn...

Read the Understanding the Basics of GERD article > >

Learn about the complications caused by uncontrolled heartburn and GERD -- and what you can do about them.

1. Damage to Your Esophagus

When the acid flows back up, it enters the esophagus, a tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. This can set the stage for:

  • Esophagitis: Stomach acid irritates the lining of the esophagus, causing it to swell. This inflammation is called esophagitis, which can lead to painful swallowing. 
  • Esophageal ulcers: GERD is the top cause of ulcers, or sores in the lining of the esophagus. Symptoms include painful swallowing, nausea, and chest pain. Your doctor will prescribe medicine to control your GERD and treat the ulcer. 
  • Esophageal stricture: Over time, the damage caused by stomach acid can scar the lining of the esophagus.When this scar tissue builds up, it makes the esophagus narrow. Called strictures, these narrow spots make it hard to swallow food and drinks, which can lead to weight loss and dehydration.

    Strictures are treated with a procedure that gently stretches your esophagus. 
  • Barrett’s esophagus: About 5% to 10% of people with GERD develop this condition, where stomach acid causes precancerous changes in cells.

    The good news is that only 1% of people with Barrett’s esophagus will get esophageal cancer. Doctors can remove the abnormal cells when they diagnose you early on.  Because the condition doesn’t cause any obvious symptoms, you should see your doctor if you have GERD. He may do a procedure called an endoscopy, where a thin, flexible tube with a camera is inserted into your esophagus.

2. Increased Risk of Esophagus Cancer

Having GERD slightly raises your odds of getting this type of cancer.

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